Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Cirencester cockerel goes on display

Monday, October 6th, 2014

The enamelled bronze cockerel found in a child’s grave in the western cemetery of Roman Cirencester in 2011 has gone on display at the Corinium Museum along with other artifacts excavated during that dig. The site was known to have had a Roman cemetery since the 1960s when it was surveyed before the construction of Bridges Garage, but the auto body shop had dug deep to accommodate two huge underground fuel tanks, so archaeologists thought whatever was left of the cemetery was probably destroyed.

When the Bridges Garage property was slated for redevelopment in 2011, the archaeologists who returned to survey the site had modest expectations. Much to their surprise, they found 71 inhumations and three cremations, a surprisingly high number of the former (the 60s excavation had found 46 cremations and eight inhumations). The cemetery spanned almost the entire period of Roman Britain, from the late 1st century through the fourth. Archaeologists were able to identify 30 females and 21 males from the inhumations (the sex of the remaining 20 could not be determined). There was significantly more bone wear in the shoulders of the male, probably an indication of repetitive motion strain from skilled crafts like stone-working rather than agricultural work.

The grave in which the cockerel was found is one of the earlier ones, dating to the middle of the 2nd century A.D. The child was about two or three years old and must have come from a wealthy family because she or he was buried in a wooden coffin with the bronze cockerel placed near his head and a pottery feeding cup with a drinking spout known as a tettine. The cockerel was a very expensive piece, the product of high quality workmanship made in northern Britain and exported all over the empire.

Only eight of these objects survive, four in Britain, four in Germany and the Low Countries. This is the only one of the British cockerels to have been found in a grave, and the only one of all of them that still has its tail. That’s significant not just because it’s a fabulous openwork enameled rooster tail, but because before it was found, archaeologists speculated that these figurines might have had a practical use, like as lamps, due to their hollow bodies. The tail was soldered in place, however, making the hollow body inaccessible and usage as a lamp impossible. It was likely included in the grave as a symbol of the god Mercury who guided the souls of the dead to the afterlife.

In the same display case with the cockerel are a selection of jewels also found in the grave of a child. Jet beads found around the neck were once part of a necklace. Jet bracelets and bangles were found at the wrists, while two bronze bracelets were buried under the child’s feet. This was a later burial than the cockerel child’s, dating to the late 3rd or early 4th century. Other jewels on display were found in the grave of a late Roman woman. Near her wrist archaeologists found bone bracelets with metal clasps, a sheet metal bracelet with abstract designs and a bracelet of glass and bone beads strung on a copper-alloy wire chain.

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Wedgwood Collection saved!

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

I am delighted to report that the Wedgwood Collection has been saved and in record time. The Art Fund’s public campaign to keep this irreplaceable archive that combines 8,000 ceramics with more than 80,000 documents recording 250 years of the political, social, industrial, artistic, technological history of Britain began on September 1st. Their goal was to raise £2.74 million by November 30th. Added to the £13.1 million they had already raised with contributions from the Heritage Lottery fund and private organizations, the total £15.75 million ($25,617,000) was the price to acquire the entire Wedgwood Collection.

Within two weeks we had raised £700,000, contributed by 4,000 members of the public. A few days later, the campaign reached £1m from the public and £1m from major donors and grant-making foundations, propelling the total to £2m.

In the last week the match fund was extended and public donations continued to flood in. The appeal surged towards its final target thanks to donations from two regional sources: £250,000 from the Bet365 Foundation, led by Denise Coates CBE, and £100,000 from Staffordshire County Council.

Nearly 7,500 people donated sums as small as £10 and as large as six-figure checks. The most popular amount was £25. Donors chipped in from all over the world, but fully one fifth of the public donations came from the Midlands, the home region of the Wedgwood Collection. Every donation from individual tenners to large pledges like £100,000 from Staffordshire construction equipment manufacturer JCB was matched by a private foundation, a generous gift that was originally only going to last the first few weeks of the challenge but was then extended through the entire campaign.

The massive groundswell of support to save the Wedgwood Collection was unprecedented in the 111-year history of the Art Fund. This was its fastest fundraising campaign ever.

Now the Art Fund has to acquire the collection as per their agreement with all parties. They will then donate it to the Victoria & Albert Museum who will be the archive’s legal owner in perpetuity. The V&A will set up a long-term loan of the archive to the Wedgewood Museum in Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent. At no point will the collection physically move. It’s in the Wedgwood Museum now and there it will remain while money changes hands and legalities are sorted out.

The post-bankruptcy merged company Waterford Wedgwood Royal Doulton (WWRD) is in the middle of an extensive £34 million redevelopment of the Wedgwood factory site which will include a new visitor center at the museum. The new World of Wedgwood is slated for completion next spring. (No, I don’t know why they had £34 million to spend on the center but had to get charity to spend less than half that amount securing the actual collection that is the major part of what visitors go to see. It’s probably some hideous legal Gordian Knot involving the bankruptcy and the pension fund liability.)

Now is the time on The History Blog when we dance, Wedgwood style.

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First coin in a hoard of 22,000 is one millionth PAS find

Friday, September 26th, 2014

Britain’s Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) has reached a milestone in a most dramatic fashion: its one millionth recorded find is a 4th century Roman coin proved to be the first in a hoard of 22,000 coins. It was found on November 16th of last year by semi-retired builder and metal detector hobbyist Laurence Egerton on the Clinton Devon Estates, near Seaton Down, Devon. He found the first two coins just under the surface, then dug deeper. His shovel came up overflowing with similar coins.

Here’s video his wife shot of his discovery:

Egerton alerted the Devon PAS Finds Liaison Officer and the county archaeologist. He was told to remove all the loose objects and refill the hole while the Devon County Council arranged a professional excavation. Just to be sure nobody else interfered with the hoard, Egerton slept in his car next to it for three nights. Between November 18th and 22nd, contract archaeologists excavated an area of three square meters around the find spot.

They found thousands of coins stuck together in one main group in a small pit. There are two concreted lumps within the main group which may indicate several deposits were made over time. The lozenge shape of the main deposit suggests they were buried in something flexible like a bag rather than, say, a chest. Underneath the coins fragments of what may be a fabric of some kind were recovered. They’ll be tested to determine whether they could be the remains of the bag that once held the coins.

The Seaton Down Hoard was transferred to the British Museum where the coins were lightly cleaned so they could be valued in compliance with the Treasure Act. The total weight of the coins is 68 kg (150 pounds). They range in date from the 260s A.D. to the 340s with 99% of them struck between 330 and 341 A.D. in the reigns of Constantine and his sons Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans. The most recent coins date to 347-8 A.D. from the joint reign of Constantius II and Constans, the latter of whom was the last legitimate Roman emperor to visit Britain in 343 A.D.

Almost all of the coins are a very common type known as a nummus made of copper-alloy with a small amount of silver. (The handful of 3rd century coins are radiates.) Most of them, more than 11,000, were struck at the mint in Augusta Treverorum (Trier), with 3500 struck in Lugdunum (Lyon) and 2000 at Arelate (Arles). In total an impressive 17 mints are represented in the hoard, and there are some ancient forgeries of indeterminate origin too.

The millionth PAS find, the first coin Egerton unearthed, is a nummus struck in 332 A.D. at the Lyon mint to celebrate Constantine’s founding of the new imperial capital of Constantinople. The obverse of the coin features a personification of Constantinopolis, a laureate and helmeted bust with a scepter over the left shoulder; the reverse depicts winged Victory standing on ship’s prow, holding a scepter of spear in front of her and a shield behind.

Coin hoards from the reigns of Constantine and his sons are among the most commonly found in Britain, but Seaton Down is notable both for its large size (the fifth largest ever found in Britain) and because it was excavated and recorded by archaeologists. All the other big Constantinian hoards, like the one of 22,670 coins unearthed at Nether Compton, Dorset, in 1989, were never recorded, analyzed or studied before being returned to the finder who broke up the collection and sold the coins piecemeal. Copper coins weren’t considered Treasure Trove by the laws at that time, and the local museum that kept the hoard until it was returned to finder just didn’t have the resources to study it properly.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme was founded in 1997 to help prevent that kind of loss to the nation’s scholarship cultural heritage. In this case it has functioned as planned, giving archaeologists the opportunity to remove the coins in solid blocks so that even tiny fragments can be analyzed for key information by an institution (the British Museum) that has the technology, expertise and funding to thoroughly study and document the find.

The hoard was officially declared treasure this month. Next on the schedule for the Seaton Down Hoard is for its market value to be determined by the Valuation Committee. The Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery in Exeter, the museum in Devon closest to the find, wants to get a jump on the process. They’ve launched a fundraising campaign so they’ll have the money to pay the finder and landowner the amount of the valuation and keep the hoard together in the county where it was discovered. You can donate online here.

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Do you recall the 1954 London Mithraeum dig?

Thursday, September 25th, 2014

It all began in 1952 when a team of archaeologists from the Roman and Medieval London Excavation Council dug a few exploratory trenches on a construction site in central London’s Walbrook Square. Victorian buildings on the site had been all but leveled by German bombs during the Blitz. The ruins were slated to be demolished a new office block for an insurance company to be built at the location. The only reason archaeologists were there is that the lost river Walbrook had once flowed through the area so the site was surveyed to record alluvial deposits that would establish how the Walbrook changed over time. Informative, but far from glamorous.

For two years the excavation, led by Welsh archaeologist Professor William Francis Grimes and Audrey Williams, puttered along drawing no interest whatsoever. They were almost done when the team unearthed the walls and floors of a stone building from the Roman period. They thought it was a private villa or maybe a public building until in mid-September they found an altar at one end that identified the structure as a temple. As historically significant a find as it was, it was still slated to be destroyed to make way for the ugly new grey box of offices.

Then on Saturday, September 18th, 1954, the last day of the excavation, a marble head of the god Mithras, identifiable by his characteristic Phrygian cap, was found. The handsome young deity would have gone unnoticed too if it hadn’t been for a newspaper photographer from nearby Fleet Street who was on the spot and took some pictures. They were printed the next day in The Sunday Times and caused an immediate sensation.

For weeks it was front page news. Immense crowds flocked to the site to see the temple, an estimated 400,000 people in total. The question of the temple’s dire fate was now a national scandal. It was debated in Parliament and twice in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill. The problem was nobody had the money to preserve the temple in situ. The government was broke and the developers couldn’t afford to move the planned building. Ultimately a compromise was worked out: the Ministry of Works would fund additional excavation and the developers would pay to remove the temple and reconstruct it at ground level for public display.

The extended excavations unearthed more sculptures — a group including Minerva, the hand of Mithras and a head of Serapis that were deliberately buried under the nave perhaps to keep them safe from depredation or as a respectful deposition when the temple was rebuilt and re-dedicated to the god Bacchus. Pottery from the earliest layers indicates the Mithraeum was first built around 240 A.D. It was extensively reconstructed in 350 A.D. after which it remained in use until the end of the Roman period.

The sculptures were conserved and put on display in the Museum of London where they joined a relief of Mithras slaying the Bull of Heaven that had been unearthed at Walbrook in 1889. The relief has an inscription that may shed light on the temple’s construction: “Ulpius Silvanus / Emeritus Leg(ionis) II Aug(ustae) / Votum Solvit / Factus Arausione” meaning “Ulpius Silvanus / veteran of the Second August Legion / paid his vow / made at Orange.” “Made” in this case doesn’t refer to the relief sculpture, but rather to Ulpius Silvanus himself, either he was discharged (made a veteran) or initiated into the Mithraic religion (made a devotee of Mithras). The Walbrook Mithraeum itself could be the vow he paid.

The temple was rebuilt in 1962 on Queen Victoria Street, 300 feet or so from its find site and 30 feet above its original depth. The ancient masonry was put back together using modern cement mortar on a crazy-paving floor. The original floor was wood. We know this because some of the joists were found during the excavation thanks to the preserving power of the waterlogged Walbrook soil. It looked … weird, to put it generously, out of place and squat and not at all like it had looked in situ. Grimes said the 1962 rebuild was “virtually meaningless as a reconstruction of a mithraeum.”

In December 2010, Bloomberg LP bought the Walbrook Square site to build its new European headquarters. The archaeological survey has retread some of the same ground as the Grimes excavation but has found oh so much more amazingness. The new complex will integrate the archaeological discoveries into the construction, and the Temple of Mithras will be part of that plan. In 2011, stonemasons carefully dismantled the reconstructed temple, removing the 1960s concrete and carefully storing the original Roman stone and tile. It will be rebuilt with a care for authenticity this time, installed 25 feet below ground level in the same spot where it was found. The underground space will be a public exhibition area in the Bloomberg building. The building is scheduled to be complete in 2017.

The Museum of London is collaborating with Bloomberg to ensure the Walbrook Mithraeum re-reconstruction is done properly this time. The museum has extensive records from 1954, but they have no extant color images of the temple in situ. In order to get as many details as possible about the temple, both for the reconstruction and to more thoroughly document this exceptional find while people who remember it are still around, the museum is collecting oral histories, pictures, home movies, ephemera about the 1954 dig.

They’re also hoping someone somewhere may have some actual pieces of Roman stone or mortar. At the time, construction workers and visitors were known to have pilfered themselves some souvenirs, so there could well be something very important cluttering up people’s attics that they may not even realize. Anything that reveals the original color of the stones, bricks, tiles and mortar would be very helpful. The oral histories, images, etc. will be included as part of the Temple exhibition in the Bloomberg building.

If you have any memories, information, images or souvenirs of the 1954 excavation, email the Museum of London at oralhistory@mola.org.uk or call them at 020 7410 2266 during office hours.

Now, thanks to the ever-delightful Pathé archive, please enjoy two newsreels about the dig. The first is a short clip of the excavation site. The fellow with the glasses is Harold Plenderleith, a pioneering conservator and archaeologist who part of the team who excavated King Tutankhamun’s tomb, Sir Leonard Woolley’s digs at Ur, and the Sutton Hoo ship burial. How’s that for an archaeological trifecta?

A more detailed look at the sculptures recovered and their conservation:

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MoMA finds lost 1913 film with all-black cast

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

New York City’s Museum of Modern Art has discovered footage of a previously unknown 1913 film with vaudeville and Broadway pioneer Bert Williams starring in a cast of all black actors. It’s not a completed film that a movie theater would have received, but rather seven reels of unassembled daily rushes, multiple takes from each scene, that the director and editor would later edit together into the finished picture. The museum discovered the footage in its collection of 900 negatives from the Biograph studios that were rescued from destruction by MoMA’s first film curator, Iris Barry, when the company’s Bronx warehouse closed in 1939.

It is the earliest surviving film to feature an all-black cast, and is among the earliest ever shot. The Foster Photoplay Company, a Chicago film production company founded in 1910 by theatrical promoter and entertainment journalist William Foster, released what is thought to be the first all-black picture, The Railroad Porter, in June of 1913. MoMA researchers discovered that the Bert Williams film was shot in September of 1913. None of the early Foster Photoplay movies have survived. (Unrelated but interesting coincidence: William Foster worked as a publicity promoter for Bert Williams and his partner George Walker’s groundbreaking 1903 musical In Dahomey, the first full-length musical comedy written and performed by African-Americans to be staged in a Broadway theater, and its equally successful 1906 follow-up Abyssinia.)

Unlike the Foster pictures which were created, shot and performed by black artists, only the actors in the recently discovered footage were black. They were employed by the famed Biograph Company, the film production company which launched the careers of D. W. Griffith, Mack Sennet, Mary Pickford, Lilian Gish, Mabel Normand and Lionel Barrymore. Biograph hired Bert Williams, who by then was hugely famous for his vaudeville routines, musicals and best-selling song recordings, to star in their all-black comedies. He had to wear blackface, which is as incongruous as it is gross considering that none of the other actors (that I can see in the stills, at least) are in blackface.

Even though it includes elements of minstrelsy, the general subject matter and approach does appear to be more in keeping with the “race films” that Foster and other black producers made to counter the ugly stereotypical caricatures of on-screen minstrel pictures.

Of historical relevance is the display of adult romantic feelings between black performers, which was largely considered unacceptable to white audiences into the first two decades of the 20th century. In the film, a repeated, lengthy kiss between Williams and his costar appears to be the earliest surviving portrayal of a serious romantic relationship between black characters on film. The film also features a lengthy early example of African American vernacular dance, with a nearly two-minute, full-cast performance of a cakewalk, the dance that Williams and partners George Walker and Aida Overton Walker had made an international sensation with theater audiences and the white upper class around 1900.

Although no main title, intertitles, script, or production credits have survived with the film, MoMA’s curators tried to reconstruct the film’s narrative, ultimately piecing together what appears to be a middle-class comedy centered on the membership of Williams’s character in a black social club, with an additional plotline concerning Williams and rival suitors vying for the hand of the local beauty after a day of fairground activities, a bit of larceny, and a night of exhibition dancing.

The plot and characters of the film aren’t the only historically significant elements of this find. There’s also behind-the-scenes footage of the black cast interacting with the white crew on set in New York City and on location in what curators believe is Englewood, New Jersey.

The unedited rushes and MoMA’s research will go on display at the museum’s 100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History exhibition on October 24th. The assembled footage will be screened at MoMA’s 12th annual film preservation festival To Save and Project on November 8th.

Meanwhile, here’s a 1916 Biograph picture starring Bert Williams that has survived intact. As with the cakewalk scene in the recently discovered film, A Natural Born Gambler features one of Bert Williams’ most famous vaudeville routines. It’s the final scene of the picture (beginning at 19:30) in which Williams pantomimes an entire poker game alone.

The Internet Archive, bless its generous heart, has an impressive collection of Bert Williams’ music. His recordings were wildly successful, selling in the hundreds of thousands back when a record that moved 10,000 copies was considered a best-seller. His most famous was probably Nobody, but my favorite is 1920′s When The Moon Shines on The Moonshine both because it’s catchy and because it’s such a perfect little window into the first year of Prohibition.

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17th c. Codex Chimalpahin returned to Mexico

Friday, September 19th, 2014

The Codex Chimalpahin, a seminal three-volume handwritten indigenous history of pre-Hispanic and 16th century Mexico, has returned to Mexico after almost 200 in the archives of the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS). The codex was slated to be sold at a Christie’s auction in London on May 21st of this year. Before the sale, Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) contacted Christie’s in the hope they could acquire the codex privately. The BFBS was glad to work with them so that this founding document of national significance could go home.

The day before the auction, INAH became the delighted new owner of the Codex Chimalpahin. The three volumes arrived in Mexico on August 18th, 2014, where they were secured in the vault of the National Library of Anthropology and History. On September 17th, the Codex Chimalpahin was welcomed home in an official ceremony attended by officials from the government, INAH and the National Museum of Anthropology (MNA). The next day the Codex Chimalpahin went on display in the Mexican Codices: Memories and Knowledge exhibition at the MNA along with 43 other codices from the National Library vault that have never been exhibited to the public before.

The Codex Chimalpahin is considered the first history of Mexico. It’s a collection of several chronicles, calendars, lists of rulers, locations, accounts of the Spanish conquest and more written in Nahuatl and Spanish. Prominent in the first two volumes are the writings of Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl (b. between 1568 and 1580 – d. 1648), a direct descendant of Ixtlilxochitl I and Ixtlilxochitl II, rulers of Texococo, and of Cuitláhuac, the penultimate ruler of Tenochtitlan. He was heir to their titles and property, but unfortunately there wasn’t much of the latter. Educated in Nahuatl and Spanish, Alva Ixtlilxochitl had a profound knowledge of his ancestors’ oral histories, songs and traditions. He worked his whole life for the people who ruled the land his fathers had ruled as a translator and historian. He died in poverty.

The Historia Chichimeca. a history of the Nahua peoples through the Spanish conquest from the Texoca perspective, is Alva Ixtlilxochitl’s most enduring work. It’s in the Codex along with several other of his writings. They are the only surviving copies of his histories in his own handwriting. Volume One even has his signature.

Most of Volume Three was written by Domingo Francisco de San Antón Muñón Chimalpahin Quauhtlehuanitzin (b. 1579 — d. 1660), a Nahuatl historian who also claimed to be a descendant of Aztec rulers. His Nahuatl names mean “Runs Swiftly with a Shield” (Chimalpahin) and “Rises Like an Eagle” (Quauhtlehuanitzin), and the first of them gives the codex its name. His writings were not commissioned by the Spanish viceroys, unlike Alva Ixtlilxochitl’s. They were written in Nahuatl for Nahuatl readers. There are only six of his works extant in his own handwriting. The other five were already in public institutions and now this last one is as well.

The manuscripts were compiled and bound into three volumes by Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora (b. 1645 – d. 1700), a poet, historian, former Jesuit, philosopher and all-around intellectual born in Mexico City of Spanish parents. He had a particular interest in the indigenous cultures and created a legendary library of native documents, including manuscripts by Chimalpahin and Alva Ixtlilxochitl. He in fact became good friends with Don Juan, the son of Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, who gifted him many of his father’s works to thank him for his help in a lawsuit against Spanish settlers trying to steal his property near the great pyramids at San Juan Teotihuacan. After Don Juan died, he bequeathed the rest of his collection to Sigüenza.

Much of Sigüenza’s famed library was acquired by Italian-born antiquary and ethnographer Lorenzo Boturini Benaduci (b. ca. 1702 – d. ca. 1753). Benaduci fell afoul of the Spanish viceroy and in 1743 he was arrested and his collection impounded. Although eventually Benaduci was absolved and the King ruled his collection should be returned to him, it never was. During the years it was kept in the office of the viceroyalty, it was horribly neglected and many items disappeared. Parts of the collection can be found in the Berlin State Library, the National Library in Paris and the National Museum of Anthropology.

The Codex Chimalpahin fell into the hands of priest, politician, historian José María Luis Mora Lamadrid (b. 1794 – d. 1850). One of his favored political causes was national literacy. To further that aim, in 1827 he made what seems like a completely insane deal with James Thomsen of the British and Foreign Bible Society: already rare original handwritten works by Alva Ixtlilxochitl and Chimalpahin in return for a bunch of Protestant Bibles to be used in a national literacy campaign.

The codex was never published or even studied. Once it left Mexico, scholars who would seek out such a source had no idea where it was. It was considered lost until it showed up like magic in the Christie’s sale. Now it’s on display in Mexico and, once the exhibition ends in January, it will be made available to researchers at the National Library of Anthropology and History.

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Peabody Essex Museum acquires gorgeous 18th c. Indian textile collection

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts has acquired a rare collection of 18th century Indian textiles that are in such spectacular condition that you’d be forgiven for thinking they were made yesterday. Made in the early 1700s for export to the Netherlands, the cotton chintz textiles include jackets, men’s dressing gowns (banyans), women’s dressing gowns (wentkes), children’s caps and bed coverlets known as palampores both hand-painted and embroidered.

Woman's jacket, mid-18th century India. Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum
Cotton, mordant- and resist-dyed, and painted. Jacket, pieced from three patterns of chintz: sleeves from a chintz with a red background and large pink flowers and leaves (lined with a European floral print), and the bodice from an Indian chintz with a white background and red flowers and vines, and a European printed cotton with small floral vines. The bodice is lined and padded with cotton. The jacket is trimmed with silk velvet and Dutch weft-patterned tape (langetband), stitched with silk thread, and fitted with brass hook-and-eye fasteners. Veldman-Eecen Collection. Image and description courtesy the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

There are about 170 textiles in the collection, all assembled by historian Alida Eecen-van Setten between 1927 and 1969. Some she bought from antiques dealers, others she scavenged from the trash, documenting every acquisition in her “chintz book.” She shared her collection with fabric designers who used the patterns in their creations and with other historians, keeping the chintz book current as new research suggested different dates. After her death, her granddaughter Lieke Veldman-Planten took charge of the textiles and the book. The collection is named after both women: the Veldman-Eecen Collection.

Woman’s dressing gown (Wentke), Coromandel Coast, India, ca. 1740
Constructed in Hindeloopen, The Netherlands, mid-18th century. Cotton, resist-dyed and painted; gown, lined with linen, trimmed with Dutch weft-patterned tape (langetband). Veldman-Eecen Collection. Image and description courtesy the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

The textiles are decorated with vibrantly colored floral motifs that began as naturalistic garden scenes commissioned by Babur, the first Mughal emperor of India, in the 16th century but had become stylized botanicals by the reign of Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal, in the 17th century. They were hand-painted and fixed using mordant and resist dying techniques that ensured the bright colors of natural dyes like red madder and blue indigo held fast without fading. Nothing in Europe could compare to the intensity and durability of Indian colors.

Portuguese traders began exporting Indian textiles in the 1500s, but it was the Dutch East India Company (VOC) that began large scale exports in the 17th century. It started out as a branch of the spice trade since Indian cloth was used as currency in Indonesia and the Spice Islands. Merchants would buy textiles with European bullion, trade some of them for spices and then sell both the cloth and the spices in Europe. By the late 17th century, England, France and the Dutch Republic each imported more than a million pieces of chintz a year.

Many textile words in English are imports from India. Bandanas were Bengal handkerchiefs sold as neck cloths to sailors and laborers; chintz comes from the word “chitra” meaning “spotted.” Calico, khaki, gingham, dungarees, pyjamas, and my personal favorite, seersucker, are all Indian words for textiles and garments that became ubiquitous in Europe during the heyday of the textile trade.

Woman's breast yoke, ca. 1750, India. Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum
Cotton, mordant- and resist-dyed, and painted. The front and back of the yoke are constructed from large, vibrant pieces of the same chintz in red, blue, purple, yellow, and green. The shoulders are pieced from several smaller fragments of a different chintz pattern. The yoke is lined with linen, fitted with cotton tape ties and brass rings, and possibly decorated with gold thread. Veldman-Eecen Collection. Image and description courtesy the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

The explosion of popularity of imported textiles sent local cotton producers into a tailspin. France prohibited the import of chintz in 1686; England followed suit in 1720, prohibiting not just its import but also its use in furniture, bedding and clothing. Demand remained high, however, and as inevitably happens with prohibitions of pretty much any kind, making the importation of Indian chintz illegal just created a burgeoning black market.

Ultimately it was duplication and industrialization starting in the late 18th century that killed the Indian export textile trade. Machine-printing and synthetic dyes made possible the speedy manufacture of large quantities of cheap fabrics. Expensive imports couldn’t compete.

Palampore, mid-18th century
Cotton, mordant- and resist-dyed, and painted. Veldman-Eecen Collection. Image and description courtesy the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

Alida Eecen-van Setten’s interest in collecting and documenting these textiles was unusual at the time. Formerly fashionable consumer goods weren’t popular subjects for historians, and keeping 200-year-old organic fabrics from decaying is not an easy thing. There are very few 18th century chintzes available on the antiquities market (or in dumpsters) today. Her taste, persistence and dedication saved these exquisite textiles for a time when they could be appreciated as the museum pieces they are. She collected in such depth that the collection today is pretty much ideal for museum display. There are 15 chintz baby caps, for example, so the museum will be able to rotate them in and out of public view to keep them all in optimal condition.

In 2015, the Peabody Essex Museum will partner with no less illustrious an institution than the Rijksmuseum for an exhibition about the Dutch East India Company’s vast and influential trade in Asian imports. The Veldman-Eecen Collection will feature prominently in the Asia in Amsterdam exhibition that will run in Amsterdam from October 16th, 2015 until January 17th, 2016, after which it will travel to the Peabody Essex.

Embroidered Palempore, early 18th century
Cotton, embroidered with silk and gold-wrapped threads. Veldman-Eecen Collection. Image and description courtesy the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

 

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Save the Wedgwood Collection

Saturday, September 13th, 2014

The Wedgwood Collection isn’t just one of the largest and most complete collections of ceramic in the world with more than 8,000 pieces from Josiah Wedgwood I’s early experiments on materials and glazes to examples of every design manufactured from 1950 through the present. It’s a vast archive of art, industrial design, business records, pattern books, photographs, correspondence, more than 80,000 documents that cover the history of the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the English Enlightenment, the anti-slavery movement, commissions from the crowned heads of Europe, trade, politics, science, and so much more. It’s no wonder the collection was inscribed on UNESCO’s UK Memory of the World Register in 2011.

Josiah Wedgwood himself, founder of the pottery company that would become the first industrially manufactured ceramic producer om the world, started the collection in 1774. He wrote his business partner Thomas Bentley:

“I have often wish’d I had saved a single specimen of all the new articles I have made, and would now give 20 times the original value for such a collection. For 10 years past I have omitted doing this because I did not begin it 10 years sooner. I am now, from thinking and talking a little more upon this subject … resolv’d to make a beginning.”

And so he did, going far beyond just saving examples of his ceramics ensuring that his already impressive legacy would include one of the most important industrial archives the world has ever known. In 1906, collection was put on permanent public display at Etruria, the Staffordshire estate that had served as both Wedgwood family home and factory site since Josiah bought it in 1766. It was moved in 1940 to keep it safe during the war, and reopened in a new gallery in 1952. Since then it has expanded into a vast purpose-built museum complex with picture gallery to display the Wedgwood family’s extensive collection of paintings, a ceramics gallery, screening room and visitors center. It has a great website too, with a searchable database of objects complete with nice big pictures.

Although the Wedgwood family planned to completely separate the Wedgwood Museum Trust from the company in 1961, for some reason they never were fully severed. This oversight became a catastrophe when Waterford Wedgwood went into administration in January of 2009. The company carried a £134 million ($218,000,000) pensions liability which was transferred to the solvent museum because five of its employees participated in the shared pension plan. Even the trust going into administration could not stop its assets from being targeted to repay the pension fund debt. A 2011 High Court ruling held that the Wedgwood Collection was an asset of the Wedgwood Museum and therefore could be sold to repay the pension fund. In 2012 the attorney general upheld the decision.

To prevent the breakup of this historic and irreplaceable collection and its piecemeal sale to the highest bidder, the Art Fund determined that it must raise the money to acquire the entire Wedgwood Collection to keep it intact and on display. The price tag is a whopping £15.75 million ($25,617,000), an impressive £13.1 million of which has already been raised thanks to contributions from the Art Fund, the Heritage Lottery Fund, and other private trusts and foundations.

The outstanding £2.74 million has to be raised by the end of November or the Wedgwood Collection will be sold off. The Art Fund has started a campaign asking for donations from the public to cover this last bit of ground. You can donate online here. That page also has information for donations by mail, text or phone. Every donation will be matched by private donors, so whatever you can give is worth double. To find out more about the collection and keep up with campaign news, bookmark the Art Fund’s Save the Wedgwood Collection website.

If the money is raised on time, the Art Fund will gift the collection to the Victoria & Albert Museum. The V&A will then return it to the Wedgwood Museum on permanent long-term loan. Nary a vase will be moved from its current location. The transfer will be a legal one, not a physical one, and it will ensure that the entire Wedgwood Collection is safe and sound in public hands and on public display in perpetuity.

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Smithsonian traces pieces of Star-Spangled Banner

Friday, September 12th, 2014

Sunday, Saturday 14th, is the 200th anniversary of Francis Scott Key’s penning of the poem that would become the national anthem of the United States. Fort McHenry, target of the British bombardment during the Battle of Baltimore that inspired Key’s poem, is hosting a panoply of commemorative events this weekend, culminating in the Dawn’s Early Light Flag-Raising Ceremony at 8:30 Sunday morning. The historically accurate replica of Mary Pickersgill’s flag made by Maryland Historical Society volunteers last year will be hoisted at the ceremony, a stand-in for the original flag. If you’re not going to be in Baltimore this weekend, you can enjoy some of the rockets’ red glare, air shows, flag-raising and fireworks via webcam.

The original Star-Spangled Banner is in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. It’s so delicate it is kept in perpetual semi-darkness (no more than one foot-candle of light) in a custom display case that cost $30 million dollars to make. The two-storey chamber is climate controlled and keeps the flag free of oxygen and vibrations. The flag is angled at 10 degrees, enough so people can view it without subjecting the banner to the drag of gravity.

One of the reasons the flag is in such a delicate condition is that for years people snipped off souvenirs from it. The Smithsonian has a number of snippets in storage, including a red and white fragment that was once on display at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis, Maryland. Other fragments may be out there in the hands of people who don’t know what they have. The Smithsonian can examine these fragments to help identify them.

With Maryland celebrating its Defenders’ Day on Friday and America’s victory over the British 200 years ago Sunday, at least two families recently inquired whether their fragments might have historical value.

Museum conservators are using microscopes, x-rays and other equipment to analyze their weaves, stains and soils to see if they match. Family histories and documents also help prove provenance.

Since the flag came to the Smithsonian in 1907, about 17 pieces have been donated or bought at auction. The museum last acquired pieces in 2003 but has no plans to try to recover them all or reattach them to the original flag.

It would be impossible to reattach most of the pieces. How could you tell where a postage-stamp sized piece of white, for example, originally fit on the flag? Curators would love to see one particular fragment reappear, however. There were 15 stars on the flag when Mary Pickersgill’s team made the flag. One of them was cut out before June 21st, 1873 when the flag was photographed on display at the Boston Navy Yard.

“We’d love to have that back,” said the flag’s chief conservator Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss. “That one I might put back on.”

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New exhibition of ancient sculpture in technicolor

Thursday, September 11th, 2014

On Saturday, September 13th, a new exhibition about polychromy in ancient art opens at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptoket in Copenhagen. It’s not the first time the museum has put on a show focusing on the vibrant colors of ancient art and architecture. Gods in Color was hugely popular, traveling from the Munich Glyptothek to the Carlsberg Glyptoket to the Vatican Museums in 2004 and then moving on to other countries in Europe, reaching the United States in 2007. New research and advances in technology since then have allowed for a more precise understanding of the evolution and extent of ancient polychromy, which is what Transformations: Classical Sculpture in Colour will explore.

The Ny Carlsberg Glyptoket has an extensive collection of ancient Mediterranean art (the largest in northern Europe, in fact), so between its own sculptures and loans from other museums, the exhibition features 120 original sculptures and color reconstructions, a geometric expansion of the 20 pieces in the 2004 exhibition. The interdisciplinary research traces the history of painted sculpture touching on the Egyptians much of whose painted works have survived, before zeroing in on Greek and Roman sculpture which was subjected to brutal destruction of its polychrome remnants by the post-Renaissance obsession with phony white marble Classicism.

The research underpinning the exhibition has been a cooperative enterprise of the museum with institutions like the Archaeology Foundation of Munich, home of the von Graeve research team in ancient color which has been pioneering the study of polychromy on Roman and Greek art and architecture since the 1970s. It’s an interdisciplinary pursuit pairing archaeologists with conservators, artists, and cutting edge technology like infrared reflectography and electron microscopy to identify and replicate the remnants of color on the original sculptures.

The exhibition at the Glyptotek shows spectacular original works juxtaposed with experimental reconstructions in their original wealth of colour, the shocking sensuality of which, at one and the same time, makes Antiquity both more present and remote. In the course of the exhibition the story of the development of colour in the art of sculpture unfolds; from the first, very insistent, but extremely effective use of strong local colours on marble, towards a higher and more refined degree of naturalism. At the same time the exhibition shows that our reading of the classical motifs sometimes changes radically when the sculptures appear in colour.

The Glyptotek has uploaded some nifty videos about the exhibition. First a simple introduction:

The next explains how we can tell that sculptures were painted, ie, by direct evidence — actual remnants of color visible to the eye — and indirect evidence — uneven weathering depending on the durability of the pigment, clearly missing elements in a relief that suggests they were once painted on, naturalistic inlaid stone eyes that would have been matched with naturalistic color on the rest of the figure.

In this video the artist experiments with a variety of natural pigments and binders, and then confers with the archaeologist and a conservator to decide which approach to take.

There is a fourth video that I gather describes how researchers scan the sculptures looking for microscopic traces of color, but so far it is only available in unsubtitled Danish. I’ve emailed the museum asking for an English version and I’ll update the post when I hear back. Meanwhile, here’s the original version which is still worth watching for the pretty pictures. If you can understand Danish, please do tell us what they’re saying in a comment or email me via the contact form.

The catalogue of the exhibition is available in English from the museum shop and online here for 249 Danish Krone, about $43. (That includes VAT but not shipping, which to the US is a gulpworthy 199 Krone, or $35.) It features articles by experts in the field with the latest research about ancient Roman and Greek polychromy and is “profusely illustrated.” Pardon me while I dab a lace hanky at my drool.

There’s also a coloring book so you can paint some of the sculptures in the exhibition to your own taste, but sadly you can only order it as part of a bundle with the Danish-language catalogue. I’ll tell you, I’m still tempted to get it even though it would push this venture well into the absurdly extravagant range. I just really, really love coloring, and it’s so irresistibly apt in this context.

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